Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 8)

Published February 16, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Automatically Archived on 6/3/2001

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Chapter Eight

The Klan

Chief of Police Seneca W. Hall knew it was going to be a rough night. Ku Klux Klan meetings were generally tame affairs, but this one looked to be different. Tensions between Klansmen and local Catholics–especially the Irish mill workers from Saxonville who had fallen on hard times–had been building for weeks and finally reached the point that state police motorcycle troopers had been required to prevent a riot at the Perley Libbey farm in East Sudbury just the previous week.

Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Charlie Way had called Hall the morning of August 9, 1925, and warned of trouble. He had also called the Framingham State Police barracks. Hall responded by assigning two officers and himself to the scheduled KKK meeting at the Libbey farm on Landham Road near the border with Framingham. Normally, one detail patrolman, whose main duty was to direct traffic and quell any disturbances by hecklers, was all that was necessary.

Now Hall was expecting trouble and his instincts were right. For several weeks, turmoil had been brewing in East Sudbury, and word went around town that August 9 would be no exception. Feelings were running high against the Klan, and the Klansmen had vowed to defend themselves if necessary.

After dark, groups began to assemble. The Klansmen in their great white hoods gathered in the field behind the barn at the Libbey farm. Anti-Klansmen and excitement seekers mingled on the roadside. Among the observers was young Clarence Ames who often followed his father, Oliver, to KKK rallies on his bicycle only to be sent home when his presence was discovered.

“There were between 150 and 200 of them there at the meeting,” he said “They had big white hats on so nobody could tell who they were.”

As the crowd of observers swelled and the dirt road between Sudbury and Saxonville became clogged with autos, the Klan leaders meeting in the Libbey house phoned for reinforcements from surrounding towns. These started to arrive after midnight, many of them swinging clubs as they drove through the rapidly-growing mob of anti-Klansmen.

The situation escalated rapidly. Sticks and stones began to fill the air and Chief Hall and his officers, realizing that there was little they could do to control such a large number of people, drew back.

Suddenly, several shots rang out from between the henhouse and the Libbey dwelling, followed in quick succession by several more. Five men fell to the street. The crowd dispersed in all directions, but not before the wounded were piled into nearby autos and driven to the office of Dr. Christopher J. Carr on Central Street in Saxonville.

Aroused from his bed, Carr applied first aid and also notified State and Framingham police that he had patients with gunshot wounds. Crowds gathered around the house and a priest was summoned to administer last rites to Alonzo Foley of Saxonville who suffered buckshot wounds to the head. Also injured were William Bradley, Central Street, Framingham, with a bullet wound in his right thigh below the hip; Frank Maguire, Water Street, Saxonville, with buckshot wounds about the body; Edmund Purcell, High Street, Framingham, buckshot wounds to the head, and Thomas Sliney, Concord Street, Framingham, who suffered superficial injuries.

Maguire, Purcell and Sliney were not injured seriously and were allowed to leave the hospital. Foley eventually recovered from his wounds.

Bradley had arrived via a side road just before the shooting started. “We were standing in the road looking for some signs of Klansmen,” he told the Middlesex News in 1981. “And then, all of a sudden, out of the woods came ‘bang!, bang!’ and Lonnie Foley got hit with buckshot right in the temple and fell in the street right next to me. And Eddie Purcell got hit with a .22 shot. I saw the blood running down his face and said: ‘hey! let’s get out of here.'” He received buckshot wounds in the thigh while trying to drag Foley to the safety of a nearby asparagus field.

Although stones were thrown and clubs were observed, the police were unable to find anyone injured except by shot. Several autos in the roadway were damaged.

The Framingham Taxi Company Ambulance, driven by Henry C. Boyle, was on the scene in Saxonville in minutes and transported the wounded to Framingham Hospital. Boyle was accompanied by Dr. Carr, who dressed wounds and made every effort to save Foley’s life.

At the Framingham police station, Lt. John J. Sheehan immediately dispatched patrolman John F. McKenna to the scene and notified Chief William W. Holbrook. McKenna found a crowd of 100 youths milling on the road. State Police details from Concord and Framingham, commanded by Lieutenant Charles T. Beaupre, arrived at about the same time and rode their motorcycles into the crowd to restore order. Beaupre immediately radioed for reinforcements from Holden and Reading.

The forty-five men remaining in the Libbey field were marched into the house by state police, identified, transferred to two state trucks, and driven to the Framingham police station on South Street. By the time they arrived, a large and angry crowd was waiting. Chief Holbrook called all Framingham officers to emergency duty and cleared the streets.

Information that one of the victims wasn’t expected to live caused the state police to take immediate action. Beaupre ordered that all men present on the estate and those attending the meeting be held on a charge of being suspicious persons where a felony has been committed.

A subsequent police search found 20 more men hiding in the barn. These were rounded up and held in a field while the police searched for weapons. Eight more youths, including Leroy Hall, 23-year-old son of the Chief, were found hiding in the bushes some distance from the rear of the barn.

State troopers found two shotguns, one rifle, a revolver, several belts of ammunition and several handsful of bullets. One rifle was found in the back seat of a Ford touring car with the chamber loaded and clogged. A handful of loaded shells were found in the car. Clubs, stones and other missiles were found strewn along the ground.

At the Framingham station, Capt. George Parker, commander of the state police patrol, assistant District Attorney Warren E. Bishop of Wayland and Detective Edward J. Sherlock, took over the investigation. Questioning continued throughout the night and the list of suspects was reduced from 75 to 24. All were scheduled to appear before Judge G. W. Blodgett the following morning.

Those charged and required to provide $200 surety included Perley W. Libbey, Robert Atkinson, Ralph Chamberlain, Oliver E. Ames and Harry Rice of Sudbury; Robert E. Diamond of N. Easton; Andrew Tervo, Calvin Whitney and Mattie Sironen of Maynard; Stanley Stevenson of Stow; Everett Brown, James R. Knowles, Warren M. Parker and Ralph E. Ambrose of Needham; Fred W. Hough of Wellesley; Herbert Nelson of Newton; James Burghart of Waltham; James Banes, Hal Buck, Russell Burks and Edmond J. Purcell of Framingham; Winfred E. LaMarine and Dennis McSweeny of Wayland along with Francis J. Maguire and Thomas P. Sliney of Saxonville. The charges against Burk, Purcell, Maguire, Sliney, McSweeny, Buck, Banes, LaMarine and Ames were later dismissed.

“That trouble was expected now comes to light,” The Framingham News reported in retrospect. “Several KKK meetings have been held in Sudbury the past few weeks and a week ago, a crowd of curious gathered on the street adjacent to the meeting. At that point it was reported that only the presence of state police prevented a disturbance.

“Since then there has been talk of trouble at this week’s meeting. Alleged Klan members gathered to protect the Libbey property from damage. They gathered with the arms that were found by the police and prepared to answer any attack.”

Klan membership had peaked in Sudbury in the early ’20s as the older Yankee and Scandinavian residents became alarmed at the influx of Southern and Central Europeans and Irish into Sudbury and surrounding communities. They distrusted the Jews and the Catholic Church and fretted that the numerous Italian families who bought cheap farmland in South and East Sudbury would proliferate and take control of the town. The Pope, some said, would soon be calling the shots in America.

The KKK’s rolls in Sudbury in the early ’20s included some of the town’s leading merchants, farmers, and citizens. Some joined to protect the 19th Century way of life in Sudbury while others were attracted by the KKK’s strong stand on Prohibition and the separation of church and state. Still others objected that the Italians and Irish traded out of town and did not patronize local stores and services.

1924 and ’25 had seen a great deal of Klan activity in East Sudbury. Meetings were held at Libbey’s and in a tent on the farm of Elmer and Henry Smith on Woodside Road. Temporary policeman Howard Burr billed the town for attending eight Klan meetings between August 8 and September 24, 1924, and the summer of 1925 was just about as busy.

But there were signs that the popularity of the hooded knights was waning both nationally and locally. Catholics, Jews and anti-prohibitionists not only began boycotting businesses owned or run by suspected Klansmen, but often challenged them at their rallies. Such was the case at the Libbey farm where, earlier that year, a motorcycle squad of State Troopers had to be called to disperse a crowd and prevent a potential riot. It was shortly after this that the Klansmen vowed to arm themselves and shoot in self-defense if necessary.

This had almost happened a week before at Westwood where both Libbey and Leroy Hall were arrested and charged with carrying weapons without a license. Each was sentenced to a year in jail on August 12, 1925, but neither served any time.

The News reported on August 20, 1925, that charges against 16 defendants including Sudbury’s Libbey, Atkinson, Chamberlain and Rice, were dismissed because the prosecution was unable to proceed. The State told the Court that evidence supporting charges of assault with a dangerous weapon would be presented to a grand jury later if appropriate.

Under questioning by Judge Edward W. Blodgett, the Klansmen said they were tired of being beaten up and injured by anti-Klansmen, so this time they had decided to arm themselves. They insisted that they had fired only after having been attacked.

Before making his ruling, Judge Blodgett made it clear to the Klansmen that, while they had the right to assemble under the Constitution, they did not have the right to assemble under arms. “If a shooting occurs and the one who shoots is apprehended, he is responsible,” he warned the defendants. “The fact that you were attacked with stones does not give you the license to use firearms.”

The Libbey Farm Riot proved to be the high water mark of the Ku Klux Klan both in Sudbury and Eastern Massachusetts. Officials and police hounded suspected Klansmen to the point where the ceremonial robes and hoods that once were worn proudly at cross burnings and rallies were hidden away in trunks in attics and garrets. Klansmen who owned businesses in town kept their heads down for fear of boycotts by Catholics.

Although some hate and bigotry against foreigners, Catholics and Jews remained well into the ’50s and ’60s, the fiery cross of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan sputtered out within the boundaries of Sudbury, hopefully never to be seen again.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.